Cannabust: Playing Politics at the Expense of NY’s Medical Marijuana Users

The criminality of hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers who use marijuana for medical purposes hangs in the balance as upstate politicians dawdle. (Photo: Cosmo Spacely/CC/Flickr)

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Before she tried medical marijuana, a Queens woman named Natalie was in such pain from two bouts of breast cancer, chemotherapy, and the side effects of medication that she went for weeks not sleeping more than two hours a night—and some nights she got only 15 minutes. In the morning, she says, she hurt so much that “I couldn’t hold a toothbrush.”

The criminality of hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers who use marijuana for medical purposes hangs in the balance as upstate politicians dawdle. (Photo: Cosmo Spacely/CC/Flickr)

The criminality of hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers who use marijuana for medical purposes hangs in the balance as upstate politicians dawdle. (Photo: Cosmo Spacely/CC/Flickr)

Regular painkillers didn’t help her. Percocet and Vicodin “did horrific things to my digestive system.” And Arimidex, the estrogen-blocking drug she takes to prevent the cancer from recurring, causes severe joint pain. “It makes me feel like I’m a 90-year-old woman with severe arthritis,” she says.

Then her husband suggested that she try smoking marijuana before she went to bed. She took a few tokes of mild herb, and “it soothed me, it helped me go to sleep,” she says. “At night, it’s like a lifesaver.”

But under New York and federal law, the 45-year-old mother of two (who asked that her last name not be published) is a criminal, violating Section 221 of the state penal code and Title 21, Section 841 of the federal criminal code. More important, even though possession of less than 25 grams has been decriminalized in New York, she doesn’t have a way of getting a legal, consistent supply of known potency. When she’s had pot that was too strong, she says, it made her feel terrified and throw up.

“It’s not fair that we have to hide and feel bad about something that alleviates things,” she says. “If it’s properly regulated, this could be a magical thing for a lot of people, or at least it’s an option.”

This year, the odds of that changing for New Yorkers like Natalie might be stronger than they’ve ever been. “I believe if a bill comes to the floor of the Senate, it will pass,” says Assemblymember Richard Gottfried (D-Manhattan), the main sponsor of medical-marijuana legislation in the Legislature’s lower house.

The Assembly has passed those bills several times, most recently last year, but in the state Senate, gerrymandered for a Republican majority, the leadership has never let them come to the floor for a vote.

This year, however, the Senate leadership is controlled by an alliance between the Republicans and a breakaway faction of five Democrats—one of whom, Diane Savino of Staten Island, is the medical-marijuana bill’s lead sponsor.

Getting enough votes is more important than the new power alignment, Savino says. On that count, she’s optimistic. She says she’s met only two senators who are “vehemently opposed” to legalizing medical marijuana, although others have expressed concerns about how to prevent the supply from being diverted and whether doctors’ recommendations will be for legitimate ailments.

“I think there’s enough votes,” she says.

The bill has not been drawn up yet, but Savino says it will set up a system where patients who get recommendations from doctors will apply to the state Board of Health for a medical-marijuana card. (continue reading...)

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